In the days before Google Maps, kids would learn how to navigate using the stars. You had to find the North Pole Star, and from that you could figure out which direction was the one you wanted to go.
The neat thing about the North Star was that it never moved. But, of course, you did not know where north was to find it. So you learned how to identify the Big Dipper that could be used to find the North star.
Of all the stars in the sky, the only one that did not move with the rotation of the earth around the sun was the North star.
God is a bit like the North star. We don’t always find him directly, and we rely on helpers just as we use the Big Dipper to find the North star. God never moves, again, like the North star. He just is. In fact, when Moses was meeting him at the top of Mt. Sinai and asked what should I tell the folks down at the foot of the mountain is your name? And God said, “Tell them I AM sent you.” God just is. Because of his permanence, we can always turn to him and he will be there. Just like the North star.
But the true God is not the flashy, “look at me” God, just as the North Star is not the star that catches your eye when you look up during the night. There are so many gods out there asking us to serve them, just as there are so many stars in the sky besides the North star. Even people not interested in the night sky can find Orion with his belt, and he is frankly more interesting and attractive than the North star. Like Orion in the sky capturing our attention when we look up, false gods like money and power sometimes capture our attention when we look for God.
The problem with stars is they are far away. And they seem to disappear when it is not night. So we find other things to use as our guideposts. Sometimes we feel God is far away, or we feel he has disappeared, and we find other beings or other things to serve in His place.
When Jesus asks Peter and the disciples “Who do the people say that I am?” he is asking if they can find the North star among the millions of stars in the sky. And it turns out many do not. The people think they are seeing another prophet – one that is up there with the great prophets like Moses or Elijah – but they don’t see Jesus for what he truly is and who he truly is.
But Peter does. This seems remarkable, given what the Scriptures tell us about Peter. Those familiar with the full story of Peter in the Bible know he is no hero, no voice of steady and unwavering fidelity to his Lord and Master, the rabbi Jeshua from Nazareth. He has moments of faith: he hops out of the boat and walks on water, but then his faith slips and he starts to sink. During the trial before the high priest, Peter will deny Jesus three times before the cock crows. At the darkest time when Jesus is dying on the cross, Peter is nowhere to be found. The Gospels paint a picture of an unreliable weakling, yet this is the man to whom Jesus promised the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is no rock on which to build the church. And history has shown many times that Peter’s successors are not often any better than Peter.
So why is Peter Peter? Why is this unreliable man the Rock?
Because he knows who God is. He knows God is not merely a great teacher, like the prophets from of old. He is not merely a great law-giver, like Moses coming down from the mountain.
God does not want you and me to “do this” or “don’t do that.” He wants you and me to love him, and adore him, and worship him. He wants us to acknowledge him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not only with our lips, but with our whole lives.
That’s what Peter did. Once he received the fullness of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, he discovered the strength that comes from God alone, and he was no longer relying on his human strength. He could go and lead the church of Rome – a country bumpkin from nowheresville in the nothing province of Palestine coming to lead the sophisticated patricians of the imperial capital. He could go to his death as a Christian “pagan” refusing to worship the emperor like everybody else. Because he knew that God alone is God. He knew what God meant when he told Moses, tell them “I AM” sent you.
This Gospel story reminds us that a critical part of our lives as Christians is seeing God as he is and for what he is. He is, as the Psalm today says, “exalted.” But he is not remote like stars in the sky. The Psalm says he “is exalted, yet the lowly he sees.”
God is exalted because he completely other – he is being itself, the eternal presence – he is pure spirit, not bound by matter at all – he is all-knowing, the creator of everything.
This exalted presence, creator of heaven and earth, is eternally seeking intimacy with his greatest creation – us – and he wants to call us friend rather than slave or servant. He offers us mercy when we are weak, just as he helped Peter when he was drowning. As St. Paul tells Timothy, we can deny him but he never abandons us. He forgave Peter when he denied him three times. God is eternally faithful. He is a permanent fixture, like the North star in the night sky, there even if we do not see him.
Peter was weak. Yet God chose him to lead the Church. God made Peter’s weakness into strength. He did not resent Peter’s weakness. He doesn’t resent our weakness. He loved Peter from weakness into strength.
He will do that for each of us, if we will see him for what he is.
He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.